How do I support EAL learners with mathematical language?

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How do I support EAL learners with mathematical language?

Author: Gemma Fanning, EAL Specialist

The language of Maths is often considered a language of its own, and this can sometimes be a difficulty for EAL students when they are learning English. NALDIC ( explain that if EAL learners are not supported to develop mathematical English, they are less likely to be able to fully-participate in the lesson, which could lead to them not being able to make sufficient progress in the subject. In addition to this, while some consider maths to be a global language, whereby EAL learners will experience little difficulty, it is important to remember that some languages have alternative number scripts with which EAL learners may be more familiar with. Pim (2010) also explains that some countries use mathematical symbols in a different way – for example, a multiplication symbol can look like a decimal point between two numbers, so 2.6 means 2×6. When writing about currency some countries use a comma instead of a full-stop to mark the pennies.

Particularly within the secondary setting, mathematical word problems often present EAL learners with some difficulties. Mertin (2014) gives examples of typical mathematical word problems that EAL learners encounter. These are:

  • You need to conduct a mathematical investigation which will help you answer the question.

  • Take a sample of the data provided in whichever way you feel is the fairest.

  • Write a short paragraph explaining what the above calculations tell you.

Mertin (2014) goes on to explain that often these types of word problems, include low frequency words such as “provided, construct, visual representation” as well as sentence structures such as the one above “whichever way you feel is the fairest” are confusing. When considering writing word problems it would be better to use the command verbs, which can be found in many other subject areas, such as explain, calculate and write. In addition to this, it would be useful to provide EAL students with a model answer, to see what is expected of them, or some sentence starters to help them answer the question.

For both younger and older students it would also be beneficial to have visuals displayed around the classroom, so the students can understand the mathematical language and become more familiar with it. In addition to this, they can translate the terms into their mother-tongue. These visual cues will help reinforce the language for the learner.

The classroom is a rich environment for learners to have exposure to lots of language. Scott (2012) suggests that teachers should consider the language structures which can be taught within the subject area. For example, if you are teaching the topic of measurements, you would firstly need to make a list of the measurement vocabulary and you can use this as an opportunity to reinforce number learning. You can also bring into the lesson some grammatical links to help the students understand, for example you could provide them with a table as seen below:

heighthighHow high…?
lengthlongHow long…?
widthwideHow wide…?

Taken From: Oxford Basics, Cross Curricular Activities, Hana Svecova

In addition to this, you can also provide students with a table to support them with scaffolding their answers, for example:

Howlongis it inmetres?It’s ….. metreslong
 wide feet and inches?It’s ….. foot/feet ….. incheswide
 high   high

Taken From: Oxford Basics, Cross Curricular Activities, Hana Svecova

These are just some examples of how EAL learners can be supported with mathematical vocabulary and word problems. Below is a list of some other methods that may be useful when working with EAL learners:

  • Use interactive whiteboards to display visuals, or as an interactive tool to allow EAL learners to demonstrate their learning if they don’t have the language to verbally explain.

  • Break down word problems into stages.

  • Display words that represent mathematical symbols in the classroom.

  • Create plenty of speaking and listening opportunities for students to practice language structures.

  • Provide a mix of pictorial, graphical and written models for problem solving.

  • Offer sentence starters to support answering questions.

Click here for a free ‘Maths operations’ resource. This resource shows words/phrases to support learners with learning alternative ways of portraying the same calculation.


Mertin, Patricia. Breaking through the Language Barrier. N.p.: John Catt Educational, 2013. Print.

Naldic. “Mathematics and EAL.” NALDIC | EAL Resources | Mathematics and EAL. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

Pim, Chris. How to Support Children Learning English as an Additional Language. Cambridge: LDA, 2010. Print.

Scott, Caroline. Teaching English as an Additional Language, 5-11: A Whole School Resource File. London: Routledge, 2012. Print

Svecova H (2004) Cross-curricular Activities (Oxford Basics) OUP Oxford

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